Improving the rural economy

CLA Senior Business and Economics Adviser Dr Charles Trotman analyses government’s newly-released Rural Proofing report

If the government is serious about taking into account the needs of rural communities and rural businesses, all government departments need to take an active role in making sure that policies are rural proofed. This is one of the conclusions from the first ever annual Rural Proofing report from Defra, the government department responsible for rural affairs.

What is rural proofing? In short, it means that government policies and actions understand the impact that these will have on rural areas. Whether it be digital connectivity, housing or the natural environment, policies that are the direct responsibility of government departments, other than Defra, need to be fully drafted and implemented that take into account the various nuances of what it means to live and work in a rural area. Issues such as sparsity, distance from markets and affordable housing all require far more than just a nod to rural challenges.

The annual report sets out in detail what the government is currently doing and what it is trying to achieve. But it does not set out targets nor does it make it clear how Defra is going to hold other departments to account. What is crucially important is that all of government is accountable and, as such, in a position to deal with problems that inevitably arise, irrespective of locality or sector.

Notwithstanding the nature of and damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis has illustrated that government departments are able to work together and recognise their own strengths and weaknesses through much-needed collaboration.

Greater collaboration

As important to collaboration within Whitehall, there has been far greater engagement with those on the ground, the stakeholders that represent local communities. This engagement is vital for government to begin to understand the impact of policies on rural areas.

The CLA has been at the vanguard in trying to foster greater engagement with a variety of government departments. No longer is it the case that our sole contact is with Defra. Covid-19 has ensured that we are now able to present policy proposals to HM Treasury, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Revenue and Customs and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

And this sums up the importance of rural proofing. It’s all about making sure that government policy is fit for purpose for rural areas. Greater collaboration within Whitehall is an opportunity for those in government to better understand rurality and ensure that policies are enacted for the good of everyone. Rural proofing is also about ensuring that there is better and more constructive engagement with those outside of government because this leads to more consistent decision making and delivery.

But in order to make it a success, rural proofing has to recognize the divides between rural and urban such as the digital divide and the productivity divide. It is only by using the indicators that prove conclusively how ever greater divergence between rural and urban can seriously damage the economy. These are key metrics of the CLA’s Rural Powerhouse campaign and it is encouraging to know that these were used as the basis of the annual report.

Defra’s first Annual Rural Proofing report is a start but we need to be given the opportunity to build on rural proofing in the future so that it becomes an integral policy instrument. We need a better understanding of rural issues in all government departments so that we can genuinely see greater accountability. What this does is start a process of more effective collaboration which then leads to vitally-important external engagement.

Rural proofing, if implemented as it should be, can fulfil the potential of the rural economy and unleash the dynamic qualities inherent in rural areas. But to make this work, everyone in the policy making system, whether directly or indirectly, has to play their part. Rural proofing can be an ever-evolving tool in and out of government but only if there is an appetite to do so.